India: Dubious 'Reconversion' Movement Expands


Himachal Pradesh becomes seventh state where tribal peoples are coerced ‘back’ to Hinduism.

NEW DELHI, March 12 (Compass Direct News)-- Hindu extremists have extended to the northern state of Himachal Pradesh a movement to bring Christian converts back to the Hindu fold through dubious “reconversion” events.

In what can be seen as the beginning of the movement in Himachal Pradesh, a Hindu group on February 28 organized a religious ritual to reconvert 151 Dalit Christians in the Arya Samaj temple in Shimla, the state capital, according to the March 11 issue of a publication that serves as the mouthpiece of the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The RSS’s weekly Organiser reported that temple priest Mahant Suryanath marked the reconversion by washing the feet of the converts, offering them water from the Ganges River (considered holy by Hindus) and reading from the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures. The event was organized by Tarsem Bharti, president of the Himachal Pradesh unit of the All India Scheduled Caste (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribe (aboriginal) Mahasangh, or federation, which is allegedly linked to the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), political wing of the RSS.

Bharti, a member of the state BJP, told Compass that some of the 24,000 Dalits and tribal people of the federation in the state had marked their membership forms as “Christian” with “Hinduism” in parentheses.

Launching an inquiry, Bharti said he learned that those people had been converted through missionaries allegedly using “allurement.” He said most of the converts were promised healing from sickness, while others were offered jobs.

Bharti prepared an “oath form” saying that those signing had been lured to Christianity but that they now wished to return to Hinduism. He took the signatures of the converts one by one. Asked if he could tell the names of the Christian organizations or individuals who “converted” these people, Bharti said he did not know.

“However, many were converted by the numerous house churches operating here,” he said.

The Organiser quoted a “former senior pastor,” Tulku Ram, as saying, “I was literally cheated. In 1997, while I was doing my graduation, they [missionaries] contacted me and assured me a good job, provided I got converted. But after [my] conversion, they sent me to the Agape Bible College, Ludhiana [in Punjab state], for a one-year training and then to the GFA [Gospel for Asia] College, Kumbnad [Kerala state] for another one-year training.”

The report said that Ram’s organization, Masihi Sangati (Christian Fellowship), had converted more than 1,000 people in Himachal Pradesh.

But the Rev. Dinesh Chand, a leader of the All India Christian Council (AICC) in Himachal Pradesh, said he had learned that most of those said to be “reconverted” had never received Christ in the first place.

“A majority of them would go to a church or prayer meeting once in a while, but the organizers told them that they had become Christians,” Chand said. “When they denied it, he asked them to come to the temple for ‘purification’ and declared their ‘reconversion.’”

Chand termed the “reconversion” event as “politically motivated” and for “personal gain.” Bharti organized the program to obtain future political benefit from it as he is an aspiring candidate for the assembly elections due next year, Chand said.

A local source who requested anonymity noted that Bharti was a “capable but sidelined” member of the state BJP.

Coercive Reconversion

According to Dr. John Dayal, AICC secretary general, what Hindu extremists call “reconversion” is in most instances “a case of mere conversion at best, and forcible or coercive conversion at worst.”

Dayal said that, according to a Supreme Court decision, Hinduism is not a religion but a “way of life.”

“How can one possibly convert out of or into Hinduism, when conversion is from one religion to another, according to the various anti-conversion laws?” he asked. “Reconversion is an oxymoron. It is a false term used sinfully by political Hinduism to convert tribals to their aggressive brand of Hinduism.”

Tribal people of India practice ethnic faiths, mainly animist, and do not practice Hindu rituals. Many social scientists and researchers object to the inclusion of the tribal people in Hinduism for census purposes, ironically terming it a “mass conversion” to Hinduism.

Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, also said that the very idea of “reconversion” as practiced in India is flawed, being the result of religious intolerance and bigotry.

“It is dishonoring of persons when they are paraded as those who have been allegedly coerced to a faith and now they are persuaded to return to their ‘original’ religion,” he said. “More often than not, the so called reconversions are nothing but political gimmicks played to the galleries.”

Joseph added that it was condescending to treat some sections of society as inferior and incapable of independent decision because of their weak economic status, “while the well-heeled have all the rights to their decisions.”

Launch of ‘Reconversion Process’

On December 30, 2006, the Congress Party-ruled state government passed an anti-conversion bill in the assembly. The bill became a law on February 20 after the state governor signed it.

A February 25 issue of the Organiser linked enactment of anti-conversion law and the “beginning of the reconversion process” in Himachal Pradesh to the centennial celebration of the birth of Madhavrao Sadashivrao Golwalkar, also known as Shri Guruji.

Golwalkar led the RSS for 33 years after the death of RSS founder Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in 1940. He promoted and amplified the Hindutva (Hinduness) ideology, a term coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923 through a pamphlet, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu,” which claimed that the Indian sub-continent was the homeland of Hindus while Christians and Muslims are its enemies as “outsiders.”

Hindutva proposes creation of a Hindu-nation ruled by those whose ancestors were born in India and who belong to religions that originated here. It allows religious minorities to live in the country but in subordination to the majority community.

The RSS celebrated Golwalkar’s anniversary from February 24, 2006 to February 18 by organizing numerous programs in several parts of the country, mainly in the north, to promote the ideas and vision of its former chief.

As part of the celebrations, last year the RSS held 85 rallies in all 12 districts of the state, covering about 75 percent of the villages in Himachal Pradesh, reported the Organiser. The rallies were organized to make the people “aware of the bad intentions of missionaries and were advised not to fall in their trap.”

Opposition to reconversion, says Hindu priest Swami Agnivesh in his article, “Back to the Vedic Faith,” is based on the premise that tribals were converted to Christianity by inducements and coercion.

“This is a hypothesis that cannot stand the scrutiny of common sense” he wrote. “The obvious fact is that the Dalits who converted to Christianity knew that they stood to lose much by way of material advantages such as reservations [affirmative action benefits]. This should have prevented them from converting.”

A 1950 presidential decree grants education and employment benefits “reserved” for Dalits belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain faiths. If thousands have given up these benefits by embracing other faiths, Agnivesh wrote, a key factor may be their desire to escape from the oppressiveness of the caste order that denies them freedom, human rights and dignity.

History of False Claims

The reconversion movement was launched by Dayanand Saraswati, who founded a Hindu reformist organization known as the Arya Samaj in 1875, during the British rule in India. Christened as Shuddhi (purification), the movement aimed at bringing back to Hinduism those who had converted to Islam or Christianity, mainly the former.

After India won its independence, Raja Vijay Bhushan Singh Judeo, the last king of Jashpur – now a district in Chhattisgarh state – adopted the Arya Samaj model to reconvert tribal people in the region in 1952. Judeo termed it as “Ghar Vapsi” (Homecoming).

In 1990s, Judeo’s son, Dilip Singh Judeo, former federal minister under the erstwhile BJP-ruled coalition government and now a member of Parliament, gave a new thrust to the movement. It was later extended to other parts of the country, mainly Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar and Maharashtra states, by organizations linked to the RSS, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council).

In 1999, Judeo claimed that he had reconverted at least 165,000 Christians in several tribal areas, reported monthly magazine Communalism Combat in March 1999. According to a report in the Pioneer newspaper on December 18, around 2,300 people were reconverted to Hinduism in 2006.

The Communalism Combat of March 1999 pointed out that Judeo claimed reconversion of a large number of Christians in the Dindoli area of Madhya Pradesh in February 1999, but most of these people had never been Christians.

In a recent example, four members of a tribal Muslim family complained that they were forced by BJP legislator Renuka Singh to return to Hinduism in a ceremony held on October 3, 2006, in Surajpur, Sarguja district, Chhattisgarh state.

Following the complaint, the Chhattisgarh High Court directed the state administration to ensure that the family was not pressured to adopt Hindu religion, reported the Milli Gazette fortnightly (November 16-30).

The publication quoted 23-year-old Nur-ul-Islam as saying that the BJP’s Singh, along with her 2,000 supporters, stormed his house and forced him to re-convert from Islam by conducting a ceremony.

“My head was tonsured and beard shaved off by her supporters,” he said.

In another incident, the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM or Hindu Revival Front) claimed that it reconverted 700 Christians on April 2, 2005, in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh. But Pastor A. David, president of Dhamtari Christian Fellowship, said those “re-converted” in the function were actually Hindus who may have attended a Christian meeting once or twice.

“The people of Chhattisgarh know very well that such programs are sham,” David added. “A few years ago, a national newspaper, the Times of India, exposed how Dilip Singh Judeo called Hindus to come to his program and later claimed their ‘reconversion’ from Christianity to Hinduism.”

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